Jonathan Calder has been writing about William Mayne, who, in the words of his obituary was “an award-winning children’s writer whose career was ruined when he was jailed for sex attacks on children”
That infelicitous phrase and the issue of whether an author’s works can continue to stand as worthy in their own right when the author has become linked with the worst possible of crimes have just reminded me of my own brief entanglement with similarly career-ruined writer Alick Rowe.
Alick got in touch with my school when he was writing a young-adult novel, and a group of high achievers who could spare the time from English classes, me included, got to work with him on a regular basis. He would write a chapter, send it to us, and then meet us as a group to discuss what we thought, and what we thought would happen next. The theme of the story was bullying, which was pretty germane to my school career, although probably what happens in the story is worse than what happened to me at the second of my three secondary schools.
My recollection is that we didn’t much change what he was writing, and I’m not sure how useful the sessions would have been to him.
The timetable of his writing ended up taking us outside of the timetable of school, and the last few chapters ended up being ready in the holidays. And Alick invited the whole group of us from school, boys and girls, to read the last chapters in his flat on Aylestone Hill and then to go out to lunch at what was then, probably, Hereford’s only Italian restaurant, Ristorante Firenze, subsequently closed.
It was this invitation to this stranger’s home that deeply troubled my parents at the time – they had been slightly uncomfortable with us meeting this author at school, but to visit him in the holidays in his own house was a step too far. I was ultimately allowed to go just because of the safety in numbers thing – there were plenty of us invited.
Nothing untoward ever happened. I think in the end I missed my train, or somehow or another way got there late, because I spent hardly any time in his house, and then felt guilty for joining in the expense of the meal out. And when I got there, I ordered my first spaghetti carbonara and was completely fazed by how filling it was – so my abiding memory of the whole thing is my own embarrassment at ordering something I wasn’t able to finish.
The book was finished and published, and is now out of print, but old copies that presumably have been doing the rounds for some time are still available on Amazon. It was called The Panic Wall.
In the time we were in conversations, we covered an awful lot of ground. We learned about his writing career. We spoke about his other books, and I went out to the library and borrowed Boy at the Commercial, his own autobiography. He was also a prolific screenwriter and dramatist and radio playwright – which lead to his retelling of the old anecdote about the amazing possibilities of radio drama over TV: with five cheap sound effects and some story telling, you can describe an enormous lake, fill it with custard, and helicopter in a cherry to drop on top. Doing that on telly would be pretty expensive. While we were meeting, a TV drama that he had written was actually on TV, and it involved some sort of military campaign, because he told us the importance of keeping the MOD onside whilst writing. If you were nice to the Army, apparently, they would help you find character names for your fiction that hadn’t ever been real soldiers who might be offended by what you had written. This was probably Friday on my Mind, for which he won a Welsh BAFTA.
Perhaps his most famous radio play – certainly the one that still gets a regular seasonal outing on BBC Radio 7, is the Sony award-winning “Crisp and Even Brightly” – a hilariously funny piece looking at the carol Good King Wenceslas from the perspective of the Good King’s Secret Service. An extract of that can be read at this website.
A few years after my involvement with Alick, my parents’ fears proved better founded than I thought at the time – and he was caught in flagrante with an underage choirboy. He had long been associated with Hereford Cathedral – as a choirboy himself in the 50s, and with the Cathedral School, and you’d often see him at choral evensong. He had paid for an endowment for the choir. He was arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
I wrote to him in prison, and even had a reply at one point, but I never met him again after 1994. Eventually, presumably after serving out his licence time in the UK, he moved to Thailand. Which. Erm. Seems to be a thing people in his situation do.
He died there on October 30th last year, and had an obituary written about him in the Hereford Times almost a month later.
- Wikipedia page – needs quite a bit of work
- A list of his radio plays, plus an obit
- His IMDB page – mostly TV credits, including episodes of Peak Practice and Tripods
- An extract from Crisp and Even Brightly
Since I wrote this, I googled the name again, and a set of photos from his funeral showed up. As I write, pretty much everything in that flickr account seems to be about the funeral in Thailand, despite only two of the photos being in the official set.